Perspectives on Parley Pratt’s Autobiography: The Literary Impulse

By July 26, 2009

Ben’s previous post was an effort to highlight the “personal agenda” behind Parley Pratt’s writing of his Autobiography. He outlined two chief forces behind its production: Parley’s desires (conscious or not) to relive and revive his preeminent influence in the Church, and to give a revisionist account of its history more favorable and forgiving to himself. To those two well-reasoned general motives, I would like to add a third fundamental impetus – one that was relatively unique to Parley as an individual.

When approaching Parley’s writings, especially his curious Autobiography, it is important to recognize that he saw himself as part of the literary world. From the time that he published his first collection of poems and hymns in 1835, Parley was consciously embarked in a literary career. As a child he had clamored for “a book! a book!” at every moment of leisure; as an adult he converted his enthusiasm for literary consumption into literary practice.[1] His writings suggest that he was both conscious and fond of the elevated tradition in which he was participating. He realized that in writing he was contributing both intellectually and artistically to the public sphere. He took up his pen in earnest.

If we attempted to associate Parley with a literary movement, he would come down squarely in the Romantic camp. Before turning to religious themes (which obscure his Romantic tendencies), his poetry was sentimental, introspective, and interested in nature and the sublime. In 1836 on his way to preach in Canada he stopped to behold Niagara Falls. Later in prison, he would recall the memory of this impressive visit to write his “The Falls of Niagara” (reprinted in the Autobiography). At the time, the Falls were a touchstone for Romantic culture – a “gateway to transcendence on the grandest scale imaginable,” or, in Parley’s words “a lively emblem of eternity.”[2] They became a symbol of the great scale and awesomeness of the American landscape. Scores of Romantics such as Margaret Fuller made the same pilgrimage Parley did, and versified similar epiphanies. While different literary trends began forming in Victorian Britain, Romanticism lingered in America.

In the microculture of Mormonism, Parley’s literary efforts flourished. Mormonism gave him a ready set of themes with which he could write and experiment. Using these, he ventured – in literary fashion – through a variety of genres, from poetry, hymnody, and essay to drama, satire, polemics, history, theological treatise…and finally to autobiography. Although much or most of what Parley wrote was didactic, he did not see the orientation of these writings as preventing them from being his own “literary” works and part of an independent corpus. He claimed both their authorship and the prestige of their publication, carefully ensuring that he obtained a copyright for each.

In addition to topics and themes, Mormonism provided Parley with a ready and supportive audience and a public to represent. Having elevated himself to a degree of education through study, Parley joined the ranks of a small Mormon intellectual elite. In a concentrated Mormon society, as in the larger general one, literary activity brought regard and social standing, and Parley eagerly embraced his position as a microcultural leader. He shared this standing with a few other lettered Saints, including his brother Orson, William W. Phelps, and eventually Eliza R. Snow. In his mind, this social position probably blended with his ecclesiastical office as an Apostle. His authority was at once literary/intellectual and ecclesiastical.

If, as Ben suggested, Pratt employed the Autobiography as a tool for renewing and remaking himself as part of the Mormon past, he may have been inspired by his literary counterparts. Autobiography as a distinct genre was a new development of the late eighteenth century. It became established (particularly in Britain) as the Romantic emphasis on individualism drove the reading public to call for more personal details about their leading figures. In fact, it has been observed that the rise of biography and autobiography is “one of the most significant features of the literary culture that defines the Romantic movement.”[3] Literary notables (like Byron, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning) used popular interest to their advantage by producing autobiographical accounts of themselves intended to enlarge their public stature and mythologize their pasts. Moreover, Romantic writers were particularly afflicted with the longing to immortalize themselves both in print and in the public memory.[4] This particular use of the genre was in some ways different from the way that autobiography had been used previously in Britain and the way it was being used in contemporary America. In these other contexts, autobiography was typically used for social commentary and criticism, not public relations.[5]

Recognizing that Parley regarded himself as part of the literary tradition and as a public intellectual helps us understand that his decision to compose an autobiography grew (at least partially) out of this sense of self. Parley’s conception of the Autobiography – quite unusual in America at the time – seems related to contemporary trends of self-making in Romantic literature. As a self-styled literatus, Pratt would have seen such a project as quite becoming. After all, an autobiography was the natural capstone to a Romantic writer’s life.


[1] Parley P. Pratt, Autobiography…, eds. Scot Facer Proctor and Maurine Jensen Procton (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2000), 4.

[2] Susan Manning, “Americas” in Romanticism: An Oxford Guide, ed. Nicholas Roe (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 151; Pratt, Autobiography, 165; See Parley’s account of the experience. Ibid., 166-168.

[3] Anthony Harding, “Biography and Autobiography” in Romanticism: An Oxford Guide, ed. Nicholas Roe (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 28.

[4] See Andrew Bennett, Romantic Poets and the Culture of Posterity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

[5] The few works of early (pre-1850) British autobiography are virtually all used to lodge social commentary. They include Olaudah Equiano’s Narrative (1789) and Mary Wollstonecraft’s autobiographical Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796). American autobiographers up until the late 19th century mostly followed suit. Such writings include the narratives of Frederick Douglass (1845) and Harriet Jacobs (1861). Benjamin Franklin (1793) was a notable exception to this pattern.


Comments

  1. Nice. So is it peculiar that he started writing an autobiography in his 40s?

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 26, 2009 @ 11:49 am

  2. Awesome work, Ryan. I love the idea of the autobiography as the climax of a Romantic’s life. As Matt Grow’s post will show later this week, Pratt was very aware that his life was drawing short; some have said that this was so much the case that he was seeking martyrdom. If this is the case, then it definitely makes sense that he wanted to cap off his career with a spiritual memoir.

    He probably picked up a lot of these British Romantic impulses while on his missions in England. While out there, his writings included many references to the great poets. Definitely some anxiety of influence, there.

    Comment by Ben — July 26, 2009 @ 4:45 pm

  3. Wonderful work, Ryan.

    I wonder about later autobiographies of LDS. Did this Romantic notion linger in the Mormon corridor longer than in other areas?

    Comment by Ben Pratt — July 26, 2009 @ 11:22 pm

  4. Thanks for this, Ryan. This is really interesting stuff. Have you compared Pratt’s autobiography to autobiographies of other religious figures during this time? A number of Methodist itinerants that had rode circuits during the first few decades of the 19th century, for example, were publishing autobiographies en masse during the 1840s and 1850s.

    Comment by Christopher — July 27, 2009 @ 9:51 am

  5. Very interesting, Ryan. Could you explain a bit more what you mean by “religious themes (which obscure his Romantic tendencies)”? Do you see this as something particular to Pratt, or do you mean it more generally? How do religious themes obscure Pratt’s Romanticism?

    Comment by Jonathan Green — July 27, 2009 @ 11:02 am

  6. “Did this Romantic notion linger in the Mormon corridor longer than in other areas?”

    My perception is sort of. Romanticism seems to persist longer in all of the ethnic/national literatures that were coming to awareness in the latter part of the 19th century. Literary immortality, after all, was a way to prove the value of the indigenous culture and Romanticism was a useful way to go about it since the materials at hand were generally folk materials.

    Comment by Wm Morris — July 27, 2009 @ 11:32 am

  7. J….I’m not sure how to account for Parley’s early composition of an autobiography other than to point to the premonitions of death that Ben mentioned in his comment. I don’t see any relationship between Pratt and other Romantics in when they wrote their autobiographies.

    Ben P….I don’t know that Mormonism held on to Romantic thought any longer than other Americans, but it’s certain that Romanticism continued much longer in America than Britain. I tend to think that Americans in the West were insulated from the latest literary developments – they were a little behind the literary times.

    Comment by Ryan T — July 27, 2009 @ 1:05 pm

  8. Chris…Great point about contemporary autobiographies of ministers. In reading Pratt’s autobiography it seemed to me that he saw himself as a writer…and also as a traditional minister or preacher. He was, after all, a Campbellite preacher before joining the Church. I suspect that there may be some correlation between his ministerial sense of self and the Autobiography as well.

    Jonathan…My point in saying that religious themes obscured the native Romanticism in Parley’s writing was simply an observation that nearly all of Parley’s mature writing was religious in nature; that is, written in support of a specific religious agenda. The visibility of Romantic themes in his writing (nature, emotion, etc.) declined as Pratt moved forward with his career and wrote almost exclusively in a apostolic/religious mode. Interestingly, some of these reemerge in the Autobiography, where Pratt works to present himself, not Mormonism per se.

    Comment by Ryan T — July 27, 2009 @ 1:15 pm

  9. Might not Parley’s impetus to write an account of his life stem from Joseph’s urging the saints to record the things they had suffered and experienced? I do not know how the frequency of autobiographical writings would compare to that of the non-LDS population of the same period, but certainly many saints wrote sketches of their lives. Even in our own times, the many admonitions to keep personal journals resonate with this concept.

    Comment by rick — July 27, 2009 @ 10:27 pm

  10. You’re certainly right, Rick, about the emphasis given to the production of persecution narratives – accounts of the persecutions that the Saints experienced. When Parley wrote his History of the Late Persecution… in Richmond Jail in 1839, he was responding directly to Joseph’s instruction to the Saints (given from nearby Liberty Jail) to write and circulate these kinds of accounts. (Joseph Smith did this in hopes that the dissemination of this information would reverse public opinion and win redress for the Saints.) Parley’s effort was one of the first published and became one of the most widely circulated. Later, the Autobiography would incorporate much of this history (perhaps for the same purposes), but it also became something much broader, something about Parley himself. The project of a formal autobiography went far beyond anything that Joseph encouraged or anyone expected.

    Comment by Ryan T — July 28, 2009 @ 12:40 am

  11. Great post, Ryan. It’s a tantalizing prospect. I would encourage you to develop this further and provide more evidence from Pratt that acknowledges his awareness of the literary world and his desire to interact with it.

    Comment by Jared T — July 28, 2009 @ 11:52 am

  12. Nice post. Work like this, and like what I have seen from others here recently, is (I hope) as big part of the future of Mormon studies: thinking about old data in new ways.

    Comment by SC Taysom — July 28, 2009 @ 1:27 pm

  13. Cool. I second the notion that more info on what exactly influenced Parley is welcome. What was he reading, who did he like, who influenced him, etc.? Also, Christopher’s observation about itinerant preachers and autobio’s is another interesting thread. A cool start, cool premise.

    Comment by BHodges — July 30, 2009 @ 5:38 pm

  14. […] University of Edinburgh (MSc, Theology in History) Favorite JI post: Recently? Ryan T’s Parley Pratt and the Literary Impulse Research Interests: 18th and 19th Century Transatlantic Thought, Theology, Intellectual History, […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » The Juvenile Instructor Turns 2 — October 26, 2009 @ 12:34 pm


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